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image: SkyPan

The FAA on Tuesday announced its largest-ever civil penalty against a drone operator, proposing a fine of $1.9 million against SkyPan International, based in Chicago, for “careless or reckless” operations. The FAA says SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized commercial drone flights to take aerial photographs in New York and Chicago between March 2012 and December 2014. About two-thirds of those flights took place in the “highly restricted New York Class B airspace,” the FAA said. The drones were not equipped with “a two-way radio, transponder, and altitude-reporting equipment,” the FAA said, which are required in Class B, and the operators didn’t seek clearance from air traffic control.

“Flying unmanned aircraft in violation of the federal aviation regulations is illegal and can be dangerous,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.” The FAA’s rules for the operation of small drones, which were due to be completed last month, are expected to be out in draft form next summer. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the FAA granted SkyPan a Section 333 exemption, “which serves as the primary method to legally commercially operate until the FAA finalizes its small UAS rules,” on April 17 of this year. SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the agency’s allegations. 

In a statement sent to AVweb by email on Tuesday, the company said: "SkyPan has been conducting aerial photography above private property in urban areas for 27 years in full compliance with published FAA regulations. SkyPan is fully insured and proud of its impeccable record of protecting the public's safety, security and privacy." Brian Wynne, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), released a statement Tuesday noting that the association is not familiar with the details of the case, but said "anyone flying a UAS in an unsafe or unauthorized manner should be held accountable." However, Wynne added, "The FAA also needs to immediately finalize the small UAS rule. Finalizing the rule will put a regulatory framework in place for the many businesses wanting to fly."

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image: Saab

Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport has been named as the first test facility for the FAA’s new Virtual Air Traffic Control Tower technology, the agency announced last week. Currently, the field is non-towered. The new system, which will be up and running by next summer, is expected to help attract commercial operators to the airport. “The high-tech array will provide an enhanced level of air safety at a cost dramatically lower than the expense required for construction and staffing of traditional towers,” according to the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. A remotely operated control tower operated by Saab has been in test mode in Leesburg, Virginia, for several months, but the Loveland facility will be the first test of the FAA’s own system. Saab’s system has been fully operational since April at Ornskoldsvik Airport in Sweden.

Remote towers make it possible to pool together controllers from lightly used airports into a central facility, and to extend services to airports that don’t have towers. Also, large sprawling airports like O’Hare that now have multiple towers could consolidate in one facility. An array of cameras and sensors sends data to the controllers, and features such as object tracking, night vision and image enhancement help to enhance controllers’ situational awareness, even in low-visibility conditions, according to Saab. The system planned for Loveland will gather position and flight data from aircraft both in flight and on the ground, fixing their exact positions. It also will monitor movement of vehicles and other objects on the ground, including animals, near airport runways, and send that information to FAA controllers at the central location.


image: Red Bull

NBAA’s annual business-aviation convention is coming up next month, and retired US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be a featured speaker. Sullenberger will talk about aviation safety, leadership and training during the event, taking place Nov. 17 to 19 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Also coming up soon is Redbird’s Migration, held in San Marcos, Texas, Nov. 3 to 4. This annual event brings together flight-training professionals and industry leaders to network and share information about flight-training techniques, new technology, and business operations. Also, AOPA has announced the dates and sites for next year’s Fly-Ins, with four new sites.

The fly-ins for 2016 will be held at Beaufort, North Carolina, on May 21; Bremerton, Washington, on Aug. 20; Battle Creek, Michigan, on Sept. 17; and Prescott, Arizona, on Oct. 1. Each event begins on Friday night and features free camping, a pancake breakfast on Saturday morning, and a full day of events, displays, seminars and vendors. Admission is free. AOPA began the regional fly-ins in 2014, and since then they have held 10 events and hosted more than 27,000 people.

Also, helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron announced his retirement from airshows this week, in an Instagram post. Aaron is the only helicopter pilot in the United States certified to perform aerobatics in a helicopter. His last show will be at the Red Bull Air Race in Las Vegas on Oct. 17-18. “I will continue to be a pilot of course,” Aaron wrote, “but I'll be done with the airshow circus.”

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The captain of an American Airlines A320 died during a flight on Monday from Phoenix to Boston, according to an airline official. Few details have been released about the pilot, but officials said the death was due to an illness. The flight diverted to Syracuse, N.Y., and landed shortly after 7 a.m. In a statement to the media, an airline spokesperson said, "Unfortunately, our pilot passed away. We are incredibly saddened by this event and we are focused on caring for our pilot's family and colleagues." There were 147 passengers and five crew aboard the flight. A new crew was sent to Syracuse to take over the flight and continue to Boston. 

With thousands of flights worldwide every day, the death of a crew member en route is not unprecedented. In 2009, a captain died midway across the Atlantic on a Continental Airlines flight from Belgium to Newark. In 2008, it happened on a British Airways flight from Manchester to Cyprus, and in 2007, a Continental pilot died en route from Houston to Mexico. In every case, the remaining crew landed the airplane without incident. Passengers were not notified, or were told that the airplane was diverting due to an ill person on board. According to the FAA, since 1994, seven pilots for U.S. airlines have died during a flight.

In audio from, controllers during Monday's incident provide a quick descent, an open gate, and emergency medical personnel to meet the flight. On Tuesday, American Airlines identified the pilot as Michael Johnston, age 57. Johnston's wife told CNN he had double-bypass surgery in 2006 and she was told he likely died of a heart attack. Johnston had flown for the airline for 27 years. The couple lived in Utah and had eight children.


The FAA has developed a new “compliance philosophy” to promote safety that “challenges the status quo,” the FAA said in a news release on Tuesday. “The Compliance Philosophy is the latest step in the evolution of how we work with those we regulate,” said Administrator Michael Huerta, at a Flight Safety Foundation event in Washington, D.C. “It focuses on the most fundamental goal: find problems in the National Airspace System before they result in an incident or accident, use the most appropriate tools to fix those problems, and monitor the situation to ensure that they stay fixed. The Compliance Philosophy recognizes that … most operators voluntarily comply with both the rules and the core principles of a Safety Management System. … So, in cases where a deviation results from factors such as flawed procedures, simple mistakes, lack of understanding, or diminished skills, we use tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”

The new policy aims to prevent operators from hiding inadvertent mistakes because they’re afraid of punishment, the FAA said. “Based on cooperation and trust, it encourages an open and transparent exchange of information and data between the FAA and industry,” says the news release. The new policy is derived from the work of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), which the FAA says reduced the risk in commercial aviation by 83 percent over 10 years. “The FAA’s Compliance Philosophy helps the FAA and industry to use critical thinking to work smarter and more efficiently to get to the bottom of potential safety problems,” said Huerta. “It's about finding a problem, fixing a problem, and making sure it stays fixed." Huerta stressed that the FAA will continue to have zero tolerance for intentional reckless behavior, inappropriate risk-taking, repeat failures, falsification, failure to fulfill commitments, or deviation from regulatory standards. The FAA will continue to vigorously pursue enforcement action in these circumstances, he said.


Burt Rutan is the 2015 winner of the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. The trophy is awarded annually to a living American for "significant public service of enduring value to aviation in the United States." It's the latest in a long list of awards for the prolific aircraft designer, who retired from Scaled Composites in 2011. It was at Scaled, based in Mojave, California, that the designs from his fertile brain took form and created aircraft that challenged convention and led to some significant aviation developments, including the first private suborbital space flight.

Rutan has been anything but retired since leaving Scaled. He's designed a flying car (which hasn't flown) and is working on a multi-purpose aircraft called the SkiGull, which can apparently land on any reasonably flat surface and has a 2500-mile range. He's also working with Microsoft co-founder and aviation enthusiast Paul Allen on Stratolaunch, a high-altitude launch platform for spacecraft.

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Bose recently introduced Bluetooth capability for its popular A20 headset. AVweb's Paul Bertorelli took a flight trial and shows how an older A20 can be upgraded to Bluetooth.

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Monday’s unfortunate on-duty death of an American Airlines captain en route to Boston from Phoenix ignited the usual talking-head idiocy on the cable channels. Well, maybe it wasn’t the usual idiocy, but extra-special idiocy in that some thick-headed broadcasters couldn’t seem to grasp that yes, the first officer—demoted to “copilot” by the less sophisticated news writers—can actually land the airplane he’s trained to fly. He or she has, you know, a type rating.

But as I was rising to my own level of idiocy wondering exactly what the protocol is for such events, pixeling into my inbox came an email explaining it all from our favorite Captain X, a training skipper for a major company you know and love. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised that there’s a checklist for this sort of thing; on the other, I was surprised how long it is: at least a dozen action items, plus after-landing tasks, on top of the normal procedures checklist for landings. And yes, the airlines do practice this scenario, rare though it may be.

Some interesting points: The use of autoflight and autoland is recommended, if available. Pilots are encouraged to use Mayday in the call to ATC and state they have a flight crew medical emergency. From there, it’s a logical series of tasks:

  1. Move the sick pilot's seat away from the flight controls either mechanically or electrically.
  2. Move the seat lever that locks the shoulder straps in place. (Both of the above to prevent lurching toward the flight controls if consciousness returns.)
  3. Summon the purser to the cockpit and ask for a PA announcement to ascertain if any medical personnel are on board and if any deadheading crew members are on board.
  4. Ask purser to locate the aircraft's medical kit, which contains materials to be used by a physician and also the AED. (The AED or automated external defibrillator can be used with pilot in a cockpit seat.)
  5. Ask the purser to find passengers who are strong enough to remove the sick pilot from the cockpit to be laid on a flat surface if CPR is to be administered.
  6. Fly to the nearest major airport with radar vectors and high-speed approval.
  7. Start the APU.
  8. Stop on the runway—do not taxi to gate—and shut down engines.
  9. Ask for EMTs to be standing by on a parallel taxiway at runway halfway point.
  10. Ask for EMTs to be brought to aircraft in a lift or catering truck that can be raised to entry-door level.
  11. Time permitting, call company to coordinate all of this.
  12. Make a reassuring passenger announcement from the cockpit.
  13. Understand that any death on an aircraft will require law enforcement intervention and substantial delays.

After that, more procedures, including overweight landing inspection if the aircraft was overweight, Customs and Immigration for international flights, refueling and re-dispatch. You can see how such a thing, whether for crew or passengers, is a stress-inducing, delay-causing grind. Yet, says Captain X, “With a declared medical emergency, you will find ATC at their best. Worldwide superb handling.” Indeed.

I did learn one thing from this incident that I probably should have known, but didn’t. The captain had diagnosed heart disease and had had a double bypass procedure. I didn’t realize that a pilot with that kind of medical history could obtain a First Class for airline ops. Not that I have an objection. After all, that’s why we still have two pilots up front.

And a good thing, too. As I was writing this, there was—improbably—a second pilot incapacitation incident on United flight from Houston to San Francisco. This time the first officer briefly lost consciousness and I’m sure the skipper followed the procedures described above, diverting safely to Albuquerque and, thankfully, with a still-alive first officer.

Both incidents show that the carefully considered safety net that has made airline flying so safe worked exactly as intended. So let’s just not think we need more regulations to fix what isn’t broken.


CORRECTION: This blog orginally said an Alaska Airlines first officer passed out while enroute from Seattle to Las Vegas. This appears to be an erroneous report. A United flight from Houston to San Francisco did divert to Albuquerque on Tuesday after the first officer loss consciousness. My apologies for the error.  

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